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Elizabeth Robinson, Jennifer Phelps and Jaime Robles in Conversation

The following conversation took place through email over several months, and focuses on the recently released anthology Quo Anima: Spirituality and Innovation in Contemporary Women’s Poetry (University of Akron Press, 2019). The conversation is between the editors of the anthology, Elizabeth Robinson and Jennifer Phelps, and one of the contributors, Jaime Robles.  

The anthology considers the work of accomplished poets including (but not limited to) Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Brenda Hillman, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Cole Swensen, and Cecilia Vicuna. Essays by Faith Barrett, Dan Beachy-Quick, Hank Lazer, Rusty Morrison, Jaime Robles, Andrew Schelling, Brian Teare, among others. Poetry and poetic statements by Laynie Browne, Beverly Dahlen, Kimberly Lyons, Laura Moriarity, giovanni singleton, among others.


Elizabeth Robinson is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Rumor (Parlor Press/FreeVerse Editions). She has been a winner of the National Poetry Series (in the U.S.) for Pure Descent (Sun & Moon) and a winner of the Fence Modern Poets Prized for Apprehend, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for On Ghosts. A new collection of poetry, Vulnerability Index, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press later in 2019.


Jennifer Phelps is a poet, writer, and editor in the Denver area and graduated with an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University in 2009. Her publications include Memory: a space between breaths (Shadow Mountain Press, 2013), “Stepping In” in Fearless Nest (Lulu Press, 2010), Grandmother God (Eyries Press, 1998), as well as poems, book reviews, and essays in various literary magazines such as Fact Simile, Bombay Gin, and Jacket2. Her website can be found here.


Jaime Robles has produced many artist books, including Loup d’OulipoLetters from Overseas, and Aube/ Afternoon. She has two collections published by publisher Shearsman Books in the UK, and a short memoir poem by Lune Press. She also has a large garden. She recently completed editing a collection of writing and artwork by the abstract expressionist Sam Francis for the Sam Francis Foundation, which will be available in October 2019. Samples of her work can be found here



JR: Tell me a bit about the history of your anthology coming into being at its first moments. What is the subject and why this subject now? 

ER: When Jennifer was completing her MFA at Naropa, she wrote a long essay on Brenda Hillman’s work and read her work through the lens of Jungian alchemical transformations. (A shorter version of the essay appears in the anthology.) When she had completed it, she sent it to Brenda, who suggested that Jennifer and I create an anthology that evaluated poetries by women that address spirituality. We decided it was a good idea. However, as the process evolved, we didn’t want to strictly limit the collection to essays, so we included personal statements, poems, and interviews as well. Also, it was important to us that the respondents were all poets themselves, so that the primary texts were explored by creative writers.  

JP: Yes, the seed for the anthology was my graduate thesis, in which I wanted to investigate the idea of mysticpoetics. I was curious to see how Carl Jung’s theories (specifically regarding alchemy and the self) could be applied to a poet’s body of work. I loved how Brenda Hillman began as a lyric poet, became more experimental over time, and in 2009, when I was working on my thesis, was writing about the elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. When I sent her my thesis, she wrote back and said that we should pursue “a book of essays about women poets and weird matters of the spirit and experimental writing.” Elizabeth and I queried several contemporary poets who were interested in contributing to the project and the anthology took on a life of its own. 

JR: What does the title Quo Anima mean? Where is it from and how does it relate to the selections? And how does the subtitle, “Innovation and Spirituality in Contemporary Women’s Poetry” follow: the curious word is “innovation” which seems locked into spirituality both as a property and as a quality that’s missing but somehow tandem to spirituality. 

JP: Elizabeth and I brainstormed several possible names for the anthology (I think I still have the original list somewhere!) and came up with Quo Anima. The meaning, “by what spirit,” held an open sense of inquiry that we felt spoke to the heart of the project. We wanted the title to offer an impression of receptivity and openness, and also be a bit mysterious in itself, invoking the idea of the feminine in some way. The poets that are featured in the anthology have a spiritual practice of some kind and use innovation as a form of expression. For me, innovation provokes an element of surprise—a sense of bewilderment—where the unexpected can take place on the page. 

ER: I hoped that the term Quo Anima would feel interrogative, open, questioning. I like the idea of a title setting off a collection as an open-ended exploration, one that de-emphasizes definitive resolution. Since “anima” can mean “spirit,” breath, current, wind,” it seemed apropos for inquiry both into the nature of poetic innovation and spirituality. Though Jennifer’s essay on Brenda Hillman employs Jungian thinking, the title here is not a reference to a Jungian definition of anima. Interestingly, several people have asked me about the title, which makes me wonder if it is problematic in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.

I think “innovation” in the subtitle signals that we do see spiritual investigation as involving open or nontraditional formal patterns—that to say the unsayable, or to interact with the mutable current of spirit, requires formal suppleness and innovation. I don’t see innovation as necessarily locked into spirituality, but the ways that we were entering into and/ or circumnavigating spiritual inquiry needed to be expansive and not tied to any single tradition or practice. My personal experience of spiritual practice is that it constantly employs innovation and improvisation, but I do think that a lot of theological or “religious” texts are cliché and may lack imagination or curiosity.

JR: It’s remarkable the number of religious practices that are mentioned by the writers: almost every major religion worldwide. What is fascinating is that most of these writers, and here I’m talking the writers discussed more than the commentators and essayists, follow a personal variation on their religion. The prevailing idea among them, however, seems to be that of the material world, or how the spiritual is found in and experienced through the material world—in nature and in the body. This is very different than the followers of the old sky gods that typifies Western religions. That impulse, to discover spirit immanent, seems almost animistic. Could you discuss writers in the anthology with this mix and how this blend “works”? It’s connection to poetry in a wider sense, perhaps.

ER: It seems to me that poetry is a possible representation of “word made flesh” and so it is understandable that an art that works at the intersection of semantics and embodied (i.e. rhythmic, auditorily charged) language would engage a spirituality that tangles meaningfully with the material world. Other reasons why this might be the case run from some authors’ experience of childbearing (Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge) or other embodied transformations such as transitioning from one gender to another (kari edwards). I think that all the authors considered or represented in the anthology struggle with ossified religious traditions/ language/ practice but embrace a vivid sense of spirituality and extra-empirical presence. Conventional religious language and dogma are very frequently hardened into cliché, which is anti-exploratory, so it takes the resourcefulness of artistic practice to disrupt and reanimate that. I am thinking of Michel de Certeau’s assertion that mystic speech is the utterance of the impossible, an eruption that could not have occurred but for the decay of previously established social traditions. It’s what makes it possible for Beverly Dahlen to bring together a childhood memory, psychoanalysis, and her own vision of spiritual presence together, and it permits Myung Mi Kim to turn war and trauma into a different kind of presence by creating a nonlinguistic poem that expresses itself through the rhythm of slashes.

Over and over, the poets discussed in the anthology are compelled into innovation by formal, religious, or personal constraints that would otherwise limit their resources. This is evidence that any kind of spiritual practice requires imagination, even if that practice is doubt (as I would argue is the case with Cole Swensen’s Gravesend). For that reason, doubt and ambiguity become subtle apertures that these poets employ to move via the necessary indirection(s) to find what they need—and also to identify the ephemeral presence that characterizes spirituality. I think that poetry’s constant tension between is/ is not, its metaphoric charge, is very much a faith practice, it’s just that poetry more readily acknowledges that “is not” than most faith traditions do. That oscillation between manifestation and disappearance might very well be at the heart of Brenda Hillman’s alchemical practice in poetry and giovanni singleton’s graphically represented disappearance of the “I” into a different kind of union between page/viewer/poet.

JP: When we queried our authors, we were aware that most everyone had a daily spiritual practice. It was not about religiosity, so to speak, but more of a way to think about the experience of the spiritual, the numinous, which is very much a felt experience. When the various pieces for the anthology came in, we were not surprised that many of them mentioned spirituality as an embodied experience. The feminine is of the body. It is of Nature. It is where numinous experiences take place. Becoming more in tune with an animistic culture—a place of spirit in nature—allows for a merging with nature where a feeling quality toward the world can be evoked. The life force, the living animated thing can move forward. Writing poetry is a way to express this. The words on the page become the life force. It is the quality of the interaction between the words on the page and the reader that creates this numinous experience, where connection can happen.

In particular, part iii of Quo Anima engages with the relationality of things and how tensions of embodiment inform spiritual understanding. Rusty Morrison invokes Henry Corbin’s ideas in her essay on Melissa Kwasny’s poetry, where there is “a plane of consciousness distinct from rational evidence … the ‘cipher’ of a mystery.” Spirit and mystery. Mystery and spirit.

The image (and one’s imagination) of poetry takes us outside of time into a different state, into a timeless quality. But it is also of the body. The sense of knowing, the sense of belonging, the sense of being part of Nature that evokes a feeling of both merging with and also feeling part of something larger than oneself. There is power in this experience that is of Nature, of the body. Sasha Steensen addresses this in her essay on Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, who works with the idea of intersubjectivity of mother/ child, which creates a type of transcendent relationship between the abstract and the concrete.

In this way, poetry is an expression of the body… metaphors are often experienced somatically. Imagining takes place through the vehicle of metaphor that touches on something that’s a more inferred experience of the numinous, which leaves space for the reader to respond in many different ways.

Poetry also invites the question, What is my relationship to my own imagination? In other words, poetry works out what most needs to be expressed. It is in this expression that the spiritual nature is evoked and becomes something that is not “me” but something that is other. It can serve as a layer between the “invisible” world, the spiritual or numinous, and the body. Often these experiences can only be felt “in the flesh” as we are human beings.

JR: Some men reading this interview and looking at the description of the book may object to the poets being discussed being only women. It must be noted that there are a number of articles by men about these women writers. Jennifer has suggested that the idea of spirituality being embodied, the immanent, is thought of as feminine, and that is true in a number of religious and psychological persuasions. Were there other reasons for containing the subject to women writers? Other than Brenda’s suggestion, that is…

ER: I think that our introduction to the anthology addresses this, but at the time that we began this project there were a few critical works that addressed a growing interest in the intersection between contemporary poetry that was both formally adventurous and attempting to excavate spirituality. I was very happy to see these books, but—despite the contributions of writers like Fanny and Susan Howe, Jean Valentine, and Brenda Hillman, the critical work I saw said very little about the work of these women writers and was focused on writing by men. So our anthology is trying to redress what we feel is absent from other projects. Neither Jennifer nor I take an essentialist stance towards gender—we include, for example, a piece on the trans writer kari edwards, and another on the non-binary expression of gender manifest in Olga Broumas’s and t. begley’s work. Nonetheless, we are quite interested in those pieces that considered the embodied experience of our (female) poets — whether that was through maternity, eros, or transitioning. Our male contributors, who are all poets themselves (as are all the contributors) apparently agreed with us that creating a site of critical discussion about women’s poetry and spirituality was a worthy endeavor. Having created a counterpoint to the critical materials we had previously seen, I’d be very gratified to see this discussion continued and enlarged to include poets of all genders, races, or nationalities. Given the amount of effort that this project entailed, however, I’m not sure that I want to take it on myself at this point.

JP: As Elizabeth mentions, we discuss much of this in our introduction, making the point that the women poets in Quo Anima are not only scholars of contemporary poetics, but resist conventions of both feminine experience and patriarchal authorities. It is this idea of “remaking” that is essentially feminine. It is a way of being “pregnant” with a new idea in order to express the unsaid, the ineffable—a mode of perception that is inherent in all men, women, and culture.

When I use the word “feminine,” I use it in a non-gendered way, as more of an archetypal principle, like Yin/Yang. It holds a specific energy. It is about relationality and intersubjectivity. It is about fluidity and the unknown.

Brian Teare, Hank Lazer, Dan Beachy-Quick, Andrew Schelling, Peter O’Leary, and Dale Smith, all astute poets and poetic scholars, were excited to contribute to this project, adding their understanding of grappling with, explicating, exploring, and examining how spirituality can be experienced within a poetic process. Teare engages with the apophatic and Fanny Howe’s idea of bewilderment; among other things, Lazer looks at how consciousness requires a sort of “slippage” in Lissa Wolsak’s work; Beachy-Quick follows the pull of poetry in Susan Howe’s work; Andrew Schelling converses with Joanne Kyger about a sense of self and place; O’Leary looks at regret, living forms, divining, and incitement in Pam Rehm’s poems; and Smith asks Hoa Nguyen how her poetry feeds her spiritual practice, or vice versa.

The fact that Quo Anima focuses on contemporary women poets is because Elizabeth and I felt that these skilled writers address what we perceive as a gap in critical conversation about how women, specifically, have participated in (and raised questions about) mystical, spiritual, theological, or otherwise speculative strains of writing. Many poets (male and female alike) are exploring spirituality with innovative approaches, but we felt these particular women poets (as well as others who aren’t included here, such as Kristin Prevallet, Lee Ann Brown, Anne Waldman, Martha Ronk, Norma Cole, Claudia Rankine, Joan Retallack, and many, many more—perhaps this is an invitation for a second anthology!) are paving a path for this new (or old) way of engaging with a topic that promotes wonder and further inquiry.

JR: Has the putting together of this anthology affected your own work? And. what is your next project?

ER: As we worked on the anthology, things shifted for some of the authors whose work we addressed or included. Notably, Joanne Kyger passed away. Jean Valentine is reportedly in fragile health. There are a number of other authors whose work we would like to have seen discussed. In other words, this anthology, like any other, frames a very limited discussion that I would like to see extend further. Both working on the anthology and receiving response to it has shown me that many people are seriously interested in opening up the topic of spirituality (and spirituality’s relation to formal innovation) further. I hope that we have opened a way for a younger generation of poets to take this inquiry in other directions or deepen it.

In terms of my own writing, I’ve been preoccupied with the spiritual all of my writing life and have often (especially in some “avant garde” writing communities) been treated derisively for that reason. So collecting material from such a range of poets has been extremely affirmative in terms of the exploration that I want to do. What I’d like to do for my next project is frame a public space in which poets in the United States can celebrate the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. I’m thinking that perhaps a website with contributions by a variety of poets would be a good way to go about this, but I’ve been a little under the pile lately because I just moved and started a new job.

JP: In early March, Elizabeth and I presented on a panel at the Metaphor, Making, and Mysticism conference at Boston College with Fanny Howe and Kythe Heller. Quo Anima fit nicely into the discussion theological scholars were having about embodiment (think: Visions of Christian mystics), expressing the inexpressible, and how mysticism belongs to a specific relationality. In addition, scholars mentioned how a mystical experience has a similar structure to a metaphor (think: poem) and that combinations of metaphors have a poetic effect.

For me, poetry is about calling something into existence that was not there before. “Making” comes into play. How do we make something that we feel (or experience) come into existence on the page?

Around the time of the conference, an exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s artwork (created at the turn of the 20th century) had recently opened at the Guggenheim; it was the first comprehensive overview of this Swedish painter and mystic/spiritualist’s work that had been seen in the United States. Uncannily, af Klint’s artwork was in fresh conversation with the mystical theological network’s discussions and the inquiries put forth in Quo Anima. It is as if these events were called into existence at the same time in 2018/2019.

Ultimately, as poets (and human beings), we have to ask what is being made/ re-made; what is being awakened/ re-awakened at this time? And why?

These questions and my personal work circumambulate around meaning, specifically, experiences by which we understand the world and make meaning, which is the central theme in part ii of Quo Anima. As a poetic practice, I am enjoying writing companion poems in conjunction with ancient books of wisdom (the Tao te Ching and the I-Ching), which brings a lot of meaning to my life, especially after experiencing the huge loss of the death of my stepdaughter in 2017.

In The Feminine: In Jungian Psychology and in Christian Theology, Ann Ulanov explains that the feminine has often been poorly understood, but as a function of the psyche (often called a religious function), it has “an unavoidable urge to meaning.”  It is this “urge to meaning” that I hope Quo Anima calls into being. That it is a gesture to explore how the feminine is working in mysterious and wondrous ways…in your life and mine.



copyright © Elizabeth Robinson, Jennifer Phelps and Jaime Robles